published Wednesday, January 2nd, 2013

Commissioners bicker over courtroom security measure

By Kate Harrison

Staff Writer

A meeting that was expected to be brief turned into a lengthy dispute among Hamilton County commissioners as they debated whether to spend $8,000 on renovations for a courtroom.

Last week, Commissioner Warren Mackey presented members of the Finance Committee with a request from several local judges wanting to bolster security in a jury room-turned courtroom for civil cases.

Mackey visited the courtroom before recommending that money be set aside for simple renovations to the room, raising the judge’s bench and installing bulletproof plating.

But as the matter went to a vote during Wednesday’s commission meeting, Commissioner Jim Fields announced that he, Commissioner Joe Graham and Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger visited the courtroom on Friday and discussed an alternative.

Fields, an attorney, suggested switching the civil courtroom with a third-floor jury assembly room, where Criminal Court is conducted. The room already has the desired security measures in place, he said.

“I talked with a couple of the judges, and they were fine either way,” added Graham, who said more time to study the issue would be “prudent.”

Mackey and Commissioner Greg Beck, who is a court officer in the building, voiced offense that Fields and Graham seemingly took the matter into their own hands without informing the entire committee of their actions.

“We come into this meeting and actions have been taken conversations have been held,” Mackey said. “It would have been nice to have been brought into that loop if people were planning to do something else.”

Fields defended his and Graham’s actions, saying, “I don’t know of any requirement that a commissioner has to form a committee to go look at something on their own.”

Coppinger also tried to “set the record straight” about his involvement with the tour, saying his interest was in the financial aspect of potential renovations.

Commissioners voted 5-3 to spend more time studying the issue, with Mackey, Beck and Commissioner Marty Haynes voting against the delay. Beck then reluctantly agreed to review the new options with the Building Committee, which he heads.

“If you have other commissioners who are going to do the job of the building and grounds people, there’s no need to go back to the buildings and grounds people,” Beck jabbed.

General Sessions Judge Christine Mahn Sell said she didn’t even know using the third-floor jury room was an option until earlier this week.

“I don’t have a problem with it. It has all the exact safety mechanisms we need,” she said. “My one hesitation is that it could add to the confusion people already have when they come into the courthouse and different courts share the same floor. I also don’t know how it may impact Criminal Court.”

Sell emphasized that her and other judges’ main concern was safety in the room.

“Civil court is much less civil,” she said.

During announcements at the end of the meeting, both Graham and Fields said they had not meant to offend other commissioners or “cross the line” by surveying the courthouse.

“There’s a thing called respect,” replied Mackey. “To be sandbagged ... is not what we want to do here.”

Contact staff writer Kate Harrison at kharrison@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673.

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